Laughing Last by John J. Staughton
“WHAT ABOUT BRINGING BACK the narcoleptic clown?” Anderson proposed, spinning his pen in that annoyingly practiced way that makes it look unconscious. “We haven’t used him in months. We can squeeze four more minutes of mindless laughs out of him.”
The other heads at the table barely shifted in response. Anderson was always keen on recycling shit that generated even the weakest chuckle from the increasingly despondent studio audience.
“Well, what’s been going on in the news?” Ramirez offered, grasping at straws in the silence of the writer’s-blocked table.
“Same shit as last week, man. Stocks are down, crime is up, and our fingers are jammed into other countries where they don’t belong,” Radley snapped back with finality; the table fell silent.
The six of them avoided each other’s eyes as they sipped from their coffee mugs, pensively musing into space or searching for the next great sketch in the swirling cream being swallowed by their morning fuel. Brent had been quiet since he’d sat down, nursing his second hangover of the week. The yellow legal pad staring back at him was blank, save the test scratches of his pen across the header: faint, then stuttered, then fully black and streaking with the promise of unrealized hilarity.
He incrementally slid his gaze across the boardroom table, taking in the artificial grain of the pale beige table and eventually reaching the empty lines of Miranda’s pad, a comfortingly blank mirror of his own. He avoided raising his eyes higher than that glaring sheet, mainly due to his fear of distracting himself even further in the repetitive swell of the white shirt above her beating chest.
They were generally a good team, but six minds can only roll around in the mud of comedy for so long before it turns back into dirt – worthless, irritating, and disposable. The mid-season dip in viewers hadn’t turned around as they had all been expecting; in fact, the perennial ratings swell of late April was already three weeks overdue. Brent hadn’t noticed, nor did he particularly care. He had participated in a baker’s dozen of identical roundtable discussions on blearing Wednesday mornings across Hollywood and each of those “artistic experiments” had all meant exactly one thing to him – a paycheck.
His lack of longevity had nothing to do with his ability to write comedy; he had journals full of fleshed out scenes that had kept audiences rolling for years of syndicated pleasure. Two of his own sketches for “LOL” and “Side Splitters” had earned him a clap on the back from head honchos who barely remembered his name and a healthy modicum of respect from the other un-showered writers that populated the Clusterfuck Conference every workday between episode airings.
No, his inability to remain gainfully employed came from his utter hatred of these vomit sessions of hackneyed ideas if he didn’t have a savage headache or a healthy buzz for protection. He didn’t fear for his own safety, of course. The other supposedly sentient clumps of comedic “genius” on either side of him needed the protection. When his pen wasn’t scribbling banter that might elicit a thoughtful smirk of appreciation, it was poised to puncture the throat of the next person that suggested an overused flashback joke or yet another impersonation of a particularly idiotic political newbie.
His previous employers had called him “alienating” and “stand-offish”, claiming that he was the opposite of a team player who struggled (or completely failed) to accept constructive criticism or “tweaking” from other writers on various now-cancelled shows. In his exit interviews, he never offered an objection to their explanations. He was generally surprised by how long the shows had put up with him, assuming that his occasional bouts of brilliance made them question the wisdom of cutting him loose too soon. Inevitably, the cost/benefit ratio always ran out for his bosses and their bean counters at approximately the same diminishing rate as his patience and penchant for civility.
It wasn’t that Brent had a problem with authority, nor even with ignorance. He simply couldn’t stand knowing that his carefully crafted words were being spat out and improvised over by a hyped-up shit with a single Hollywood credit to his name and a free Friday night to film some sketch comedy. It was practically pro-bono work for this revolving door of morons; god knows it was free publicity for a career that would likely fall flat before he or she even shamelessly sniffed the asshole of someone who had experienced an “Oscar buzz”.
Yet, as he had feared some Sarlaccian pit always would, this particular place of employment had grabbed his heart, if not his head, and seduced him into eleven months (Fuck me, at least it hasn’t been a year) of endless spitball Sundays in the same slightly wet room. It wasn’t the surfaces that were perpetually damp; the people, the air, and the words they bandied back and forth across the table were limp with disinterest, like the boring section of a newspaper you never feel guilty using to clean up stray coffee rings. The Want Ads, if you’re lucky.
The moisture wasn’t his main point of attraction, to be clear. The majority of the sub-human perspiration producers in the room could have literally combusted in the midst of a brainstorming meeting and he would have hardly batted an eye unless their ashes blew in Brent’s direction. Every morning when he dragged himself out of the unwashed embrace of his matchbox loft, the magnetic draw towards the office had little to do with gainful employment or some ultimate purpose in the conventional sense of art. He preferred to think of himself as Sagan’s little wet dream, a pale, beige, sentient dot maneuvering in the same area of space as the (black) hole he thought about more than breath, movement, or life it-fucking-self.
The problem was, Miranda wasn’t all that funny. She had her moments…those gleaming seconds of wit that genuinely lit up the team’s collectively jaundiced eyes and garnered appreciative nods from at least half the table. However, she didn’t like pushing too far, which is the precise distance of stupidity and callous indulgence that the show was basically founded upon.
In his eleven months of working in this literal dead end, there had been three female writers. Two of them had shown real promise, and contributed some sincerely snarky and memorable bits to the team. Unfortunately, their knee-jerk rating as aesthetic 6’s had probably gotten them the job, due to the slobbering scum that gave the final “okay” for any new hire, but their standards, morals, and general quality as human beings made them unwilling to slide into the undercarriage of managerial filth. In other words, they had rejected his advances and had subsequently been let go. The justifications for their firing had hardly even shown creativity; Brent’s former sleaze-ball check signers had at least tried to create a believable premise for the firing of average prudes who loved Jesus, liked clean comedy, and hated alcohol over 4.3%.
However, the third member of the female writing triumvirate (and the only one still employed) was Miranda. She had strolled in the door five months ago, slammed an out-of-date Macbook the color of manila folders and coffee ice cream on the conference table and punched his heart in the face. Her first impression hadn’t been an exception to any rule; Miranda had slouched into every day at the office in the same way, disheveled, disdainful, and disproportionately more attractive than any other woman Brent had ever seen. He had seen beautiful women from afar, mainly whilst walking purposefully to various jobs he tried to pretend he didn’t have, but Miranda was in his sphere; we’re peers, goddamit! He liked to imagine why her computer was so faded, perhaps from a summer in Morocco or Istanbul, where the sand had dusted the white to its current tanned hue, but another part of his heart hoped it was from depressive chain-smoking in a shitty apartment that largely resembled his own.
The latter was true. Miranda had never left the country.
Yet, despite her outward appearance, which could only be described as lazy bohemian, as though she had accidentally fallen into de rigueur fashion through a negligence-fueled time warp, she possessed an air of confidence and a dismissive aura that intoxicated the mouth-breathers surrounding her every morning. She was cool incarnate; the impossible lovechild of Tina Fey and James Dean. For the first month of her employment, Brent’s eyes were trained to his yellow legal pad like a Pavlovian slave, unwilling to drag themselves thirty degrees past the lower dumpling rims of her breasts. His head was like the swiveling skull of a hula girl hood ornament during a salt flat speed run – side-to-side and straight ahead. Up and down meant death.
Their first eye contact occurred on May 7th, a day that would live in infamy, not because he finally manned up and connected with the proverbial windows to her soul, but because the gastrointestinal gods had destined him to be her unwanted accomplice for a small moment. During a particularly heated argument over whether the callback Cheesehead character should crack a joke about a recently indisposed athlete’s sexual indiscretions, a minor eruption shook his vicinity of the table. The sound, outside the normal lexicon of boring chatter, had dragged him from the semi-conscious state he was enjoying and he looked up. Normally, he only raised his head when he knew that Miranda was busy scribbling intently, directing a comment (and her face) towards someone else, or laughing (which meant that she threw her head back for at least 3-5 seconds, no matter how profound or pathetic the joke happened to be…she had a standard response to humor).
However, her unexpected emanation in the fifth week of his knowing her was the first time they had shared an inside joke, although he doubted that she viewed it the same way. He heard it, she knew it, and their eyes locked together for the first time in that stupid, impossibly unpredictable moment. He had obviously imagined things going differently. Their first glance was supposed to be drenched in magic and memory, a story to tell their theoretical grandchildren that might instill a sense of true love in their pygmy souls. However, as is the case in most “true love” stories, romance was perhaps the furthest thing from either of their minds (although admittedly, this un-ladylike first move had done little to dull his affections).
That notwithstanding, if stories were ever told to their as yet non-existent children, she’d probably prefer that this initial moment were left out of their mythology.
Their eyes locked, their nostrils flared, and she was his.
Note: the thought, “she was his”, was far from mutually agreed upon.
In that passing instant, realistically, she probably hated him. However, as those brain scholars so often suggest, hate and love dabble on the same dance floors, and if nothing else, they would always have something to laugh about. Brent’s grandmother used to swear that the only reason she hadn’t plunged a corkscrew through the eye of his grandfather is that he simply knew too much, even the insignificant moments of passed gas that she so desperately pretended had never occurred. Familiarity breeds contempt…but also security.
The moment had passed, but it was impossible to forget, no matter how hard she wished for blunt head trauma and temporary memory loss for the grinning fool across from her. At least he was on her radar.
However, a few months later, by that particular mentally fogged morning, the natural garbage chute of her memory had erased that moment. Brent was just another face around the table, pensive and seemingly fascinated by creating the next viral sensation.
“What about the Olympics?” Ramirez choked out, regretting the words as soon as they had escaped his hungover throat.
“What’s the angle, man? It’s a fucking punch line in itself? No shit! Reality isn’t funny…” Radley quickly squashed the suggestion into the mass grave of bad ideas slowly being filled by the collection of hacks around the table.
“At least it’s current, man…what the fuck do you have for us, Radley?”
For the first time in longer than any of them could remember, Radley had nothing witty to spit back. Things hadn’t been going well that week. Wednesdays were for polishing, not producing, and everyone was on edge. The previous day’s pitches that had been tossed back-and-forth like rabid hot potatoes had never baked into a script; things at the writer’s table were getting scrappy.
“What about that athlete who pretended like he accidentally shot his wife. It’s still an Olympics angle…he could have had a secret career as a music producer or something. Every surface was soundproofed. I don’t know…” Miranda proffered quietly, as though terrified at daring to disturb their small universe of silence.
The room hushed; everyone was waiting for someone else to reject the idea, but in fact, there was no obvious reason why it wouldn’t work. Brent decided to throw himself on the chopping block right along with her; he quite literally had nothing to lose.
“That could work,” he supported her as innocuously as possible, although he saw himself as a bold white-hatted stranger, stepping up to defend the damsel’s thought.
Her eyes flicked to his, which were miraculously lined up with hers, for once. She cocked an eyebrow, as though waiting for the inevitable shoe to drop where he shot down the idea or tried to subvert it with his own twist. When no caveat was tagged on to the end of the idea, she offered him a slight smile before swinging her head back to the group.
He was sure that all of the blood from his brain was now sinking into his cheeks, so he hurriedly scratched out the idea onto his pad, anything so he could lower his face before the flush was detected. Miranda, bolstered by at least one supporting voice, continued. This was new for her, as she usually came up with one-liners and tweaked phrasing; she was not what most of them would consider an “ideas person”.
“We’d have to be careful to keep it light; it’s not exactly a great thing to joke about – murder and all. But there is certainly something ridiculous there. You know what they say about tragedy + time…” She was on a roll, and having still not been cut off, she allowed her mind to ramble on. “We could do a split stage of him inside of some weird bathroom studio with headphones on, mixing tracks or something. A woman comes in and knocks on the outside door, loud. He can’t hear, so she starts shouting and banging on the door…” she trailed off, running out of steam. That was acceptable, however, as the rest of the table had picked up on the idea, desperate to rescue any clever piece of floating detritus that could salvage that week’s show.
Radley still looked unconvinced. Perhaps he was just angry that someone else had come up with a workable idea, but his next objection was actually well founded. “Travis won’t do it. He’ll shoot it down before we even finish the script.”
Travis. Travis Arthur. Just hearing the name made Brent’s liver thirsty. Travis Arthur was the only real headliner of the show, having appeared in some low-budget comedy spoof a few years ago that legions of potheads and Neanderthal audiences had eaten up like ecstasy at a German warehouse party. Critically acclaimed it was not, but it bought him enough street cred to appear as a guest star on a number of more successful sitcoms and eventually landed him as the mildly hunky sketch-comedy superstar of their show. He hadn’t taken an improv class until three months after he’d started the gig, and even since then, the classes had done little for his timing or wit. He insisted on having a full script for every sketch, thereby defeating the entire point of the genre, and he almost never diverged from his lines. Every other actor on the stage, despite not being the next Jim Belushi, wasn’t afraid to take a risk once a month or so and toss in a punch line off the top of their head – but not Travis Arthur. He had left more actors hanging out to dry than the casting office of NBC, but he didn’t care. He was the unquestioned star, so flopped sketches could never be blamed on his rigid, awkward stage presence or failure to string together a joke that hadn’t been endlessly practiced in front of a mirror in the 24 hours leading up to show time.
What was worse than his depressing lack of talent was his fear of controversy. He shot down approximately 80% of their ideas, calling them tasteless, uncreative, crass, or simply ‘not funny’, a subject on which he considered himself a veritable oracle. Although the production staff regularly tidied his asshole with their slobbering tongues, the writers were the ones who took the brunt of his criticism, and had subsequently developed a stark hatred of that tall drink of ditchwater. He was like their dickish demi-god version of James Franco. He dropped bottles of expensive booze and laughed, little more than a Benjamin bill-burner of his freshly rotting generation.
Each of them had to desperately squeeze the edge of the writer’s roundtable when Travis walked in the room to prevent themselves from throwing anything within arm’s reach at his coiffed dome, but they were still only writers. As such, they tried to avoid suggesting anything unnecessarily controversial, in order to save their own time and patience when he would inevitably reject it as “not funny” or “too soon”. Yes, this self-appointed god of comedy might make their collective blood pressure soar, but they still had to play his game. That, or quit. In the eternal battle of principles vs. paychecks, history and basic math had shown which one inevitably came out on top.
Brent could see Miranda visibly slump at Radley’s words, but Brent agreed with Radley. The same thought had actually crossed his mind, but he didn’t want to be the guy who shot down her first real idea in months; he may have been a pussy, but he was far from a fool.
“It’s the best we’ve got at the minute, Radley. Travis will probably hate it, but we’ve got to have something to hand him at the end of the day…” Ramirez had come to the idea’s defense, and he also made a good point. A surefire shoot down was better than nothing. Miranda seemed to be feeding off the meager support, and Brent could see the wheels turning in her head as she expertly spun her pen in an unconscious tick.
“And what if we took out the gun angle? Have him do something else. Call the police, go into a panic room, piss his pants…maybe Travis would give it the okay if we took out the controversy,” Miranda suggested, buoyed by another surge of creativity the likes of which she had rarely shown to the group.
Brent wasn’t about to let Ramirez be her only caballero in shining armor. “And anyways, fuck Travis. When he comes in and suggests an idea that follows his impossible fucking standards of taste, then we’ll happily write it for him. This is what we’ve got. You all know that it would go over well.” He looked over at Miranda and casually slipped a smile and a small nod in her direction. Someone had clearly possessed his body. In the past three minutes, they had connected more than at any point in the past five months.
“Oh yeah, Brent?” Radley had stood up, rattled by the challenges to his objection that were now coming from multiple sides. “Fuck Travis? Why don’t you tell him how you feel at 5 when he comes in for the script? I’ll just sit back and relax; you can do the idea pitch instead!”
Brent let the diminutive head writer have his little outburst, then calmly turned to him, playing it as cool as possible, and said, “I’d happily pitch this one to him, boss, but I think Miranda gets to take the lead. It was her idea, after all.” Gallant as fuck.
Radley hesitated for a moment. Brent could see the tiny scales of his mind weighing whether to make this a “thing” or just end the confrontation as quickly as possible and save what little face he had left. He made his decision, but didn’t look happy about it. “You know what, fuck it. You guys scratch this one out. See where it goes. But at 5, one of you can let Travis tear it apart; I’m done pitching your ideas to that smarmy cunt.”
Their Napoleonic leader, having said his piece, sat down in a deliberate huff. Ideas started to snap back and forth across the table and an outline formed over the next hour. Brent contributed some good lines, and Miranda stood at the whiteboard, hurriedly scribbling and crossing out lines as they rose, fell, settled, and were eventually cemented by group approval. She seemed awake for the first time in weeks; Brent remembered the first time he’d stood at the board and watched one of his creative babies grow. By two, the empty boxes from their ordered-in lunches pushed to the center of the table, they had a legitimate framework for a pitch. If Travis gave the idea the go-ahead, they could crack out the details tomorrow and have a ready script in his hands by tomorrow afternoon. They polished a few other sketches in the meantime and broke up at 3:30 for a coffee break, which meant that they all stood outside in the humid afternoon and chained cigarettes until 4.
Somehow, he found himself next to Miranda leaning on the wall outside, on the opposite side of the door from the other writers. It had been a day of firsts. First idea that turned into a sketch from Miranda, first time he’d stood up to Radley, and certainly the first time he’d had a conversation with this siren that extended beyond “Good morning” and “Have a good night”. Sing me towards the fucking rocks.
He waited until they had both inhaled their first cigarette before turning to her, having spent his first fag planning his articulate entry into conversation.
“Hell of a good idea in there.” Proust, I am not.
“Yeah, thanks. It feels good to finally land one,” she replied casually, clearly not as intimidated by the English language as he.
“Do you think Travis will go for it?” he asked without thinking, hoping that there hadn’t been any shadow of doubt in his voice.
“Who knows…he can be a weird guy. I’m just glad Radley let us run with it,” she answered thoughtfully, seeming genuinely unconcerned by the fate of the sketch.
“I know, right? It’s like he stumbled into a studio one day and cracked a joke, and the world suddenly assumed he was a comedian. We’ve wasted so many good ideas on that guy.” Brent didn’t want to reveal just how much he despised Travis, but it was hard to keep it under wraps, particularly since his mind wasn’t exactly equipped to simultaneously handle tact and charm during a conversation with this woman.
“I know. I mean, you’ve had at least 6 or 7 sketch outlines that he’s pissed all over in the last few months. That must be really hard,” she had turned her body to face him, her shoulder resting lightly on the stone wall, her back to the rest of the writers. They might as well have been sitting across a candlelit table. Brent let himself slip into those pools he’d been snatching glances at for months. They were green, with a small fleck of hazel on the bottom edge of her iris. He’d never noticed it before, probably because they had never held eye contact for more than a second, and never over less distance than their writer’s table afforded him.
He was filled with a surge of energy – drunk with confidence. “Obviously, it sucks, but I know that some of my ideas are good. That guy just doesn’t understand what comedy is all about.” His mouth was moving ahead of his mind, rushing blindly, dangerous at even the best of times. “Your ideas are great, too. You might take your time and pick your moments, but your jokes always land.”
“Wow…thanks, Brent.” His words had clearly caught her off guard, and he could tell that she was struggling with the unexpectedly honest statement of support.
Brent realized that it was the first time she had ever said his name. He wanted her to say it every day. Every morning. Across the breakfast table. Before they dropped their kids off at school. At my fucking funeral. “To be completely honest, I’ve been doing this for so long that I can hardly tell anymore.”
He was struck by the sudden, unbelievably foolish urge to brush the stray wisp of hair that had tumbled down over Miranda’s eye. She didn’t seem to notice, or care, and he immediately fumbled for his pack of cigarettes, eager to occupy his hands lest they take matters into their own fingers.
He wanted to continue this commiseration, as misery so loves company. He plucked out a cigarette, artfully deposited it between his lips, and closed the pack in one smooth, practiced motion. For a moment, he was John Wayne, one leg braced against the concrete wall and a beautiful stranger at his side. He flipped open his Zippo and scorched the tip. He felt her eyes on him, and his mind felt dipped in honey after the first drag.
He shifted his gaze and opened his mouth, preparing to spit out something nonchalant and indecipherable, an extraction line of sorts, but he stopped just short of speech. She was smiling at him – there was no mistaking it. She didn’t pull her eyes away, and there they stood, gazing at one another, saying much with little.
He knew that this was the moment when The Duke would have made her melt with some effortless line that showed his restless, untamable soul and his gentlemanly charm at the same time, but Brent was fumbling for breath, let alone silver-tongue drops.
“Ready to pitch the idea?” The question wasn’t terrible, but it was far from breathtaking.
“You mean am I ready to get my idea shot down?” Miranda replied with a staccato laugh like crumpled wrapping paper on Christmas morning. He joined her instantly, buying time while he thought of what to say next. Their mingled amusement trailed off and she flicked her smoke into the street, symbolically drawing whatever moment they’d shared to a close.
“Heading back in?” she inquired even as she pushed off the wall and straightened the strand of hair that had been dangling loose across her forehead.
“Well, I was considering making a run for it, but I should probably stick around to see your big moment,” Brent replied and smirked playfully, satisfied.
Miranda offered him another of those bottomless smiles as she stepped towards the door, pushing it wide behind her, a swinging invitation that he was quick to accept. He dropped his own cigarette without hesitation and left it trailing smoke on the salt-and-pepper asphalt.
“So what do you have for me today?” Travis swept into the writer’s room like a gelled diva, intent on finding the spotlight immediately.
Radley sat motionless at the head of the table, stretching out the awkward moment with arms pompously crossed before gesturing subtly towards Miranda and giving her a patronizing nod of the head, like a bloated king allowing the peasant girl to speak. She shuffled through the top few pages of her legal pad, looking uncertainly between Travis and Radley. She stood up and turned towards the board, which was a jumbled puzzle of ideas, contradictions, columns, and a strange scoring combination of circles, stars, and underlined words.
“Hello, Travis,” Miranda opened, and Brent tensed uncontrollably. Hearing Miranda say his name was like an opera singer belching death metal.
“Miranda,” Travis replied with a nauseating smirk that revealed an isosceles triangle of too-white teeth, “are you running the show today?”
Brent looked down at his own pad so Travis wouldn’t see him visibly cringe.
“Looks like it,” she replied and turned back to the board.
“Well, let’s hear it.”
“Okay…so, the core of the bit is a parody on the Pistorius shooting. I know it’s a bit heavy, but we’ll take things from his perspective. Say he was a closet paranoid, jumpy, “trigger-happy”, fearful for his life…”
Brent let the rambling wave of her pitch wash over him, waiting for the inevitable cut-off point where Travis would arbitrarily pick out some detail that was impossible to overcome. He had seen it a dozen times before, often with his own ideas, and he preemptively pitied her, tensing in anticipation of the hammer.
When no cruel interruption arrived, Brent opened his eyes to see Travis nodding in silence. He actually seemed to be paying attention. Miranda was rolling now, the idea developing even as it leapt off her tongue. The rest of the writers seemed as stunned as Brent, staring with jaws half-agape at the unbroken pitch from the quietest member of their table.
Brent turned his attention back to Miranda, spying the flush in her cheeks as she rattled off the close of their rough sketch. About halfway through her spiel, Travis had sat down at the empty chair purposefully left for him at the head of the table. He leaned back and crossed his heel across his knee, one finger and thumb obnoxiously stroking his non-existent beard, as though he were masterfully revealing the culprit in some locked room mystery series. When she reached a logical end to the pitch, she turned back to face him. He cleared his throat obnoxiously and tugged lightly at the cuffs peeking from the inside of his sports coat. Brent spotted the mother-of-pearl glint of cufflinks and considered hurling his half-filled cup of coffee at Travis.
“I like it.” Travis had never started his feedback with those words, and every head surreptitiously turned in the actor’s direction, suddenly suspecting that he’d been replaced by a robot, or had been heavily dosed with Benzedrine. “I mean, there are a few things…” Travis trailed off, and the room seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief at the return to normalcy and pointless criticism. However, he returned them to the Twilight Zone a moment later. “…but nothing serious. I trust you guys. Let’s run with it.”
The dumb stuttering of Radley’s lips was the first sound they heard, followed by his noxious words. “Bu…wha…wonderful, Travis. That’s…really great. Glad you like it.”
Radley’s words were followed by a burbling of noise from the other writers, mainly harrumphs and throat clearings to signal approval, or perhaps to replace whatever shouts of surprise they were quelling.
Miranda stood speechlessly beaming, easily the most naked display of emotion Brent had ever seen from her. She was even more beautiful in that moment. Radiant.
“So you’ll have the final script to me tomorrow?” This was the shortest pitch meeting that any of them had ever sat through. Travis looked across the table at Radley first, and then his eyes settled on Miranda, who stared wide-eyed at him, nodding instead of trying to form words.
“Of course, Travis,” Radley filled in the blank, before directing the next order to the table. “Let’s take twenty and then put in another hour on this, people.” Brent was still not sure what he’d just witnessed, but what this clearly meant was less work than normal for the evening, an earlier quitting time, and a reason to celebrate.
Half of the writers pushed back out of their chairs, already withdrawing cigarettes and patting for lighters as they headed back outside in a jittery line. Miranda leant over the table and shuffled some of her papers, flipping her yellow legal pad pages back to reveal a fresh sheet. He could see the small smile playing across her face, and when she flipped back her hair, she caught his gaze.
His brain wasn’t catching up to his emotions, so he mustered a cocked eyebrow and a smirk, followed by a little nod and a half-wink. He suspected that it looked like something between a facial seizure and a charming piece of silent communication.
She giggled to herself, casting her eyes down, more demure than he’d thought her capable, and he was suddenly emboldened.
He’d been drifting through this job and career for years, but perhaps it had been bringing him to this. Although they’d had their longest conversation to date earlier that afternoon, the timing seemed ideal.
He swallowed and waited for her giggling to subside. He looked back up to her, trying to seem casual and comfortable. “It worked, Miranda. Congrats. Nailed it.” He kicked himself for adding that third little complimentary phrase. His words were never perfect, but she sure as fuck seemed to be.
“Thanks, Brent. I think our little pep talk did the trick.” She nailed his heart to the wall behind him. Our. Our little pep talk.
“Well, I’ve got plenty of pep talks. Maybe I can give you another one over a drink sometime. What are you doing tonight?” He tasted his words as they came out and watched them hang in the air. He re-played the instant immediately, and narrowly stopped himself from nodding in approval at his own succinct pitch. It was easily the smoothest thing he’d said to a woman in months, perhaps years, and it hadn’t even been that clever.
She hesitated for a moment, surprised either by the request or his sudden self-assurance, but chose to play along, still riding the high of the meeting. “No plans. Ice cream, a joint, a movie, and a bottle of wine, not necessarily in that order. Unless you have a better offer.”
He swallowed down the cheek-splitting grin that threatened to ruin everything, and instead cleared his throat – partially affected – with a smirk. These were the opening beats of a flirtatious dance to which he’d nearly forgotten the steps.
“Well, it sounds like we’ll be finished here by 7 or so, and there’s a half-decent pub I know down the street. Decent beer selection, a good back garden, and an excellent whiskey list.” As Brent offered a silent shrug of invitation and a smile, he saw a hand fall on Miranda’s forearm, widening his focus, which had been narrowed on her face.
“Did you just say that you’ll be done around 7 tonight?” Travis’ voice abruptly stopped whatever reply Miranda had been about to offer.
Miranda flinched at his touch, but didn’t recoil. “Ummm…yes, probably.” Miranda looked back at Brent, who thought he saw a spark of pleading apology in her eyes.
“That’s perfect,” Travis continued, leaving his hand on Miranda’s forearm. “Like I said, there are a few things I wanted to tweak, but I have to run to another meeting. This was your idea, right Miranda?” She turned to face Travis and Brent stood stupidly across the table, frozen like a cheetah on a rock, preparing to leap for Travis’ throat.
“Oh, ummm…yeah, I had the basic idea, but—“
“Great, so you’re the person I should talk to,” Travis interrupted her. “I’ll be back at the studio around 7. Maybe we can grab some dinner and go over the changes.”
“Well, actually, I was planning on—” Miranda’s head imperceptibly turned back towards Brent, but her eyes didn’t follow.
“What? You don’t eat?” Travis cut in again with a nauseating air of innocence. Brent could feel blood rising to his face, up through his neck to bloom in his cheeks.
“No, of course I do. I just…” Miranda was stuttering through the exchange, perpetually one step behind.
“Great. Settled then. I’ll pick you up right here around 7?” Travis cocked his head, another rebuttal surely perched on his tongue if she tried to refuse again. He may have been a talentless hack, but years on the outskirt glow of the spotlights had made him a master of snagging any mildly attractive writers, stage assistants, and other middle-ground talent for an evening or two. He wasn’t bedding starlets, but he had learned to use whatever modicum of stardom he had to pull blinders over peripheral beauties.
“Okay,” she answered quietly, and with that single word, Brent felt his stomach wrenched down out of his guts with a rusty fist.
Travis appeared to notice Brent for the first time, and as their eyes locked, Travis seemed to give a slight shake of his head, nearly imperceptible, and his eyes tightened for a split-second.
“Better go grab another cigarette, brother. Looks like you’ve got work to do.”
Travis had never spoken to Brent outside of shooting down his occasional ideas, but that innocuous comment felt like the crunch of brass knuckles into his cheek.
Brent had no response, nor did he want to stand there any longer as an audience member to his personal version of Dante’s lowest circle. In a final act of desperation, frustration, or rage, he launched one more gambit, ignoring Travis as he spoke.
“Miranda, are you coming out for a smoke?”
In the momentary calculations he’d made, his offer would be seen as one of a few things: an innocent request, a potentially chivalrous method of extracting her from an awkward situation, or a non-confrontational way for Brent to stand his ground against an alpha male. All three options seemed acceptable, but he hadn’t, of course, thought beyond those positive outcomes.
“Oh, Brent. Right…Yeah, I’ll meet you out there in a few minutes.” Miranda offered him a look that could only be interpreted as sympathy, a gut-wrenching drop from the look of apology he’d almost spied a minute earlier.
Not wanting to prolong the moment any further, Brent left his stack of empty papers behind, grabbing only his lighter from the table.
He walked towards the exit as if he wasn’t digging his fingernails into the numb palm of his left hand. He strolled without acknowledging the hot clutch of nausea in his gut.
He couldn’t have spoken, even if he’d wanted to. His list of desires had narrowed to the next two minutes: smoke a cigarette and wait for Miranda to join him. He wanted them to laugh together about how much of a pompous ass Travis truly was, and decide where they would go to get that drink after work.
The sun had tumbled low in the past hour, partially obscured by the tallest of the Hollywood Hills. The hiss-crack of his lighter was followed by the sizzle of dry tobacco – the flush of heat and nicotine coated his throat. He stared out at nothing, standing frozen except for the molasses-deliberate movements of flame to fool.
He looked out at the lengthening shadows on the nearest hill, and then the grainy buildings and areas of green on the rising peaks further back. He kept peering further into the distance, abandoning resolution, letting his vision melt into a muddled pool of mirage heat waves and his own smoke slipping acrid and sharp into his eyes.
When the cigarette burnt down between Brent’s fingers, sending a bolt of pain through his nerves, he hardly flinched.
His mind was lost on time – how long it had taken to smoke that cigarette. The seconds in took to walk from writer’s room to smoker’s pole. The minutes required for Miranda to extricate herself from Travis’ lingering attention. The hours until they were finished with work. The number of days he’d spent sitting across that table from her, only to finally ask her out moments before the most bleached asshole in Hollywood made his move.
The second cigarette went down faster, and Brent felt sweat bead up on his forehead as his heart struggled to keep up with the stream of stimulant he was devouring in anxious gulps. He was pacing in short nervous laps by the time he lit his third. Twenty minutes had surely passed. Or had it been less?
As he stopped his dizzying loops, he realized that he was the lone smoker on the side of the studio building. He hadn’t noticed the handful of other addicts go back inside The scrape of a metal bar being pushed from inside whipped his head around, and he couldn’t stop the smile from spreading as he saw the door begin to open. Miranda.
Radley’s balding head appeared, resembling a dickless groin being shoved out into the afternoon sun. It scanned right and left before settling on Brent, whose face was as inscrutable as the Dalinean nightmare of his mind. “What the fuck are you doing out here? Do you not own a fucking watch?”
Brent stared at the wet sheen on Radley’s cheeks, as though hair gel had dripped down and then dried there before being wiped away. He saw the bloated neck and the spreading pit stains under his arms. He spied the raggedy Converse and the slightly splotched trousers, where coffee, streaking donut fingertips and rubbed-in ash had created a dark palette of grime. Brent could smell the desperation in the leather bracelet that failed to make Radley look alternative or stylish, merely eclectic and heavy-handed.
“Brent? Are you fucking deaf? Travis just took Miranda to go over script notes, or fuck each other in the bathroom, I don’t really know or care. But now we’re one writer down and the one piece of ass worth looking at in the room just walked out of it. So, I’ll say it again, can you just get back to the goddamn table? What the hell’s the matter with you?”
If Brent had been within reach of Radley, he may have put the cigarette out on the side of the man’s throat, but instead, he flicked it expertly, like a flaming dart, striking the door beside the man’s phallic skull before Radley could even duck.
“Are you fucking high, you little prick? Or just looking to lose another job?” Radley predictably went to his default…a threat to employment. Jobs defined the world to people like Radley, and he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) understand others who simply didn’t care. People like Brent were glitches in Radley’s system. Sparking lines of secret code.
“I’ll come get my check next Friday, you talentless shit-midget. Until then, you can go fuck yourself.”
Brent had left nothing behind but a pad of unused ideas and a dream deferred long enough to explode.
The sun had abandoned the plastic street as he turned and strode away into the lengthening shadows, hearing nothing but a sputtering sigh from Radley and the laughter of the wind in his ears.
Read this whole collection of strange madness in SN3: Bastille Day.